Penn Museum to bury skulls of enslaved people

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Penn Museum to bury skulls of enslaved people
Visitors in the Egyptian section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, Nov. 28, 2012. Mark Makela/The New York Times.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- More than 175 years after his death, a man named John Voorhees may finally have a proper burial.

Voorhees died of consumption, or tuberculosis, at a Philadelphia hospital for the poor in 1846, when he was 35 years old. But, after his death and without his consent or knowledge, his remains ended up in the hands of Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century physician and anatomist known for his influential racist theories on intellect.

Voorhees was one of 13 Black Philadelphians whose skulls were subject to Morton’s experiments. Come fall, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, known as the Penn Museum, is hoping to give them a traditional burial ceremony that it said was long overdue. Students had for years called for the remains to be returned to descendants.

“It’s a really important moment to do the right thing and acknowledge the problematic history of parts of this collection,” said Christopher Woods, the director of the museum, which has held the Morton collection since 1966. “These individuals were collected under absolutely terrible circumstances — Morton preyed upon the most vulnerable and weakest of society. These individuals should be laid to rest.”

The 13 skulls were only a small part of Morton’s vast collection of some 1,300 skulls from around the world. Morton’s studies laid the groundwork for the now-discredited “race science” that contributed to 20th-century eugenics. His collection was said to be the first — and, at the time, largest — scholarly anatomical collection in the United States. The Guardian this week reported the plans for burial.

Part of the collection was prominently displayed in a museum classroom until 2020, when a group of students brought to light that some 50 skulls had come from enslaved Africans in Cuba and called for the bones to be returned to descendants. The museum moved the displayed skulls into storage with the rest of the collection.

Now the museum is petitioning the Orphans’ Court in Philadelphia to bury the 13 skulls at Eden Cemetery, a historically Black cemetery in the city. If the burial is approved, Woods said, the museum plans to host a public, interfaith ceremony at the cemetery this fall. The museum would then turn to repatriating the skulls from Cuba, he said.

Little is known about the 13 Black Philadelphians, and Voorhees is the only person identified out of the group. But a 2021 report found that some of them were probably enslaved, and their remains came from the grounds of where the Penn Museum currently stands: The museum was built on the former site of the Blockley Almshouse, a charity hospital. The skulls of the Black Philadelphians were probably taken from unmarked graves at the almshouse.

“I think this is a really important moment for museums and an extremely important moment for descendant communities,” said Samuel J. Redman, an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “Bone Rooms,” a history of remains collecting in museums.

Because Morton was “obsessed” with white supremacist views, Redman said, it was critically important to Morton to document the race of these individuals. Morton, Redman said, received remains from “interested individuals” around the world, operating in a “shadowy, gray market of remains that were bartered, bought or stolen for cash.”

But, Redman said, “Morton is just the tip of the spear.”

The potential burial of the 13 skulls comes amid a broader discussion about repatriation of Black Americans’ remains. The Morton skulls represent just a fraction of collections of remains across the United States, with others including those at Harvard University, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution, whose National Museum of Natural History houses the nation’s largest collection of human remains. Of the 33,000 remains in the Smithsonian’s storerooms, about 1,700 are believed to belong to African Americans.

“If there are 30,000 sets of human remains at the Smithsonian, that means there are 30,000 stories of how they got there,” Redman said.

But some believe the Penn Museum should not be the steward of these remains at all. Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a community organizer and writer who uses nonbinary pronouns, was a member of the museum’s advisory committee on repatriating the remains. They criticized what they called the museum’s “rushed” decision-making and said descendant communities should decide what happens to the remains. Muhammad filed a formal objection with the Orphans’ Court saying as much.

“Penn’s role is to give us resources, and that’s it — to bear witness to that process but not be a part of it,” Muhammad said. “They should not be the ones who decide how a healing process happens. That’s simple oppression mathematics.”

The Morton skulls and other collections speak to broader calls from researchers and African American communities for legislation similar to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which requires museums to return remains to tribes and descendants who request them.

“It’s time to have a broader conversation about the nature of this history and the vast and complex and dark legacy of collecting human remains that hasn’t been fully dealt with,” Redman said. “Where we are now with the situation is not tenable.”

Michael Blakey, a co-chair of a commission on the ethical treatment of human remains at the American Anthropological Association, agreed. Blakey, who is an anthropologist at the College of William & Mary, was the scientific director of the African Burial Ground in New York City.

“My colleagues have not demonstrated any scientific value in that particular collection,” he said of the Morton skulls. “Ultimately there needs to be a discussion, not only about the ethics of holding human remains without informed consent of their descendants, but in that discussion, we should be weighing the value, or lack thereof, the research that might be done.”

The museum said thousands of CT scans of the skulls had been distributed to scholars around the world to study things like health patterns in past human populations.

Shanna Williams, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of South Carolina, called the decision to bury the Black Philadelphians from the Morton collection “a smart first step” and was wary of calling it a full-blown shift in how museums approach repatriation. But their burial could represent a new way of approaching archival human remains. For many of these skeletons, like that of Voorhees, “consent was not a part of the equation,” Williams said.

“As a scientific community, we are moving identity to the forefront,” she said. “We are transitioning from the idea of individuals being objects and making them subjects. That’s when the personhood of an individual returns.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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